It’s a quieter time at Disney World these days. We’ve seen a few attractions like Frozen Ever After join the fold, but most of us are looking ahead. That trend should change as we move into 2017. This timeline is probably too optimistic, but it’s possible that we could see major expansions in each of the next three years. Notwithstanding other rumors of possible changes, it’s outlandish to expect this three-year plan for openings:
- 2017: Pandora: The World of Avatar (Animal Kingdom)
- 2018: Toy Story Land (Hollywood Studios)
- 2019: Star Wars Experience (Hollywood Studios)
While these expansions are exciting, I’m more focused on the incremental changes that help make each park better. These aren’t all game changers and sometimes involve just making a ride work correctly. Many of us don’t even realize when effects are turned off or partially functioning. The “disco Yeti” is obvious; others have more subtle issues.
This post is the first in a series covering each of the Disney World parks (and maybe others). It’s simply my wish list for updates in the next three years. Heading towards the resort’s 50th anniversary, I want these parks to shine. Disney has made some nice tweaks, but there’s a lot more to do. Let’s make this happen!
1. Demolish Chester and Hester’s Dinorama (All of It)
Each summer, I take my daughter (who’s 7) to Six Flags St. Louis thanks to free reading series tickets. It’s a fun day, but the atmosphere isn’t that comforting. One big reason is the constant presence of carnival games. They’re tacky and seem like a cheap money grab. Six Flags isn’t known for great aesthetics, so I understand the games a little more. I don’t have the same feeling about Disney’s use of them. The Animal Kingdom is a beautiful park; this very concrete area seems way out of place there.
I know that Disney has developed a back story for Chester and Hester’s Dinorama, but that means little when it’s hot and you’re there. Like parts of DCA, this mini-land screams cost-cutting during the later Eisner years. It has two rides, but they’re both variations on off-the-shelf models. I like the idea of Dinoland but would prefer almost anything to this jumble. Replacing the Dinorama with a top-notch single attraction would maintain the feel of the rest of the area. The Boneyard and Dino Institute areas need few updates; the final third is the issue. My wish is to see one more imaginative part of an original land in a park that’s on the rise.
2. Fix the Effects on Dinosaur
During the pre-Everest days of the first eight years of the Animal Kingdom, the biggest thrill came from Dinosaur. I rode it during the Countdown to Extinction days back in the Animal Kingdom’s first month. It was a louder and more intense experience that really packed a punch. It also employed special effects constantly to sell the premise. The current version has its moment but is less consistent. Some areas are just dark, and it’s hard to follow what we’re seeing.
I’m not hoping that Disney reverts the ride to its original version. What I’d rather see is more interactions with dinosaurs and some brighter sets. We can look at the continued success of Indiana Jones at Disneyland for a model. I’d rather experience a more immersive world than a jerky funhouse ride. The formula is set for a thrilling attraction we want to ride repeatedly. Disney needs to fix the broken effects and make a few upgrades. It wouldn’t take huge investments to make it happen either.
3. We Need a New Yeti!
Allow me to dunk the basketball with this pick. Expedition Everest is an incredible attraction, but part of the sales pitch is “encounter the yeti!”. I rode back when the yeti was functioning properly, and the effect was the perfect ending for a thrill ride. It’s sad to not see any significant efforts to fix the “disco yeti” from Disney in many years.
I recognize that the Animal Kingdom has limited headliners and needs Everest. Still, Disney must pull of the band-aid at some point. Pandora will open next year (I hope) and draw crowds to the other side of the park. I’d suggest that Disney target January-May 2018 for this project. It avoids the summer and rides the early wave of Pandora (and possibly Rivers of Light) excitement. I don’t need the yeti to exactly follow its original set-up either. The replacement must work properly, provide thrills, and have easy maintenance. Given modern technological advances, this should be possible.
4. Update Rafiki’s Planet Watch with More Experiences
There’s something missing at Rafiki’s Planet Watch, the education center accessed only by the Wildlife Express Train. Initially called Conservation Station (and still partially named that way), this location has so much promise. It gives you a chance to actually see animal care up close. It’s filled with learning spots and is great for kids. Eighteen years after the park’s opening, this spot feels a little stale, however.
The first challenge with Rafiki’s Planet Watch is just getting there. The Wildlife Express train is a nice idea but often cramped and slow to access. The next step is a long way to the main building. I’m in decent shape and don’t mind the exercise, but it’s easy to just skip this place. We need a better way to get there. Second, I’d love to see Disney make over the entire area with a new look. The theme should remain similar, but why not sell the latest knowledge, technology, and conservation efforts? My local zoo is remaking its exhibits in this way; Disney needs to work harder at the Animal Kingdom. It wouldn’t cost heaps of money and could yield serious results.
5. Make Pandora a Place That Can Thrive Apart from the Movie(s)
When Disney announced that Pandora was coming to the Animal Kingdom, it was a knee-jerk response to Harry Potter. Five years later, we still know only the basic details of this land. There will be two attractions — a Banshee flight simulator and a boat ride. I’m more interested in the latter due to its connection to some of my favorite Disney World attractions. I suspect that both rides will be successful, but that’s only a small part of what I wish for with this land.
Pandora is currently based off a single film, so there’s no massive universe to uncover like Star Wars. What Disney must do is find a way to make this area work on its own merits. It should simply be a magical land of fantastical creatures; the movie is just the source material. For example, Pirates of the Caribbean comes from a single idea: a fun, immersive ride with pirates. Can Pandora provide an original atmosphere for novice guests? If James Cameron never makes another Avatar movie, we should still be able to enjoy this place. I’m confident in Joe Rohde’s abilities if the business guys stay out of his way. In a sense, this is a trickier feat to pull off than Potter. Many are expecting Pandora to fail, and I hope it surprises all of us.
6. Create Vibrant Nightlife Throughout the Park
I was thrilled to see Disney’s efforts to expand the day at the Animal Kingdom this past summer. They opened a great new bar and restaurant and created the Tree of Life Awakenings (which drew raves). There was so much potential, but it fell apart. The main reason was Disney’s inability to fix Rivers of Light. People also weren’t staying late to make it worth Disney’s while to keep the hours extended.
My wish is that Disney will redouble their efforts and deliver a better nighttime experience next year. Rivers of Light will eventually open, and Pandora should draw crowds. More importantly, Disney must work harder to make the park a livelier place at night. This needs to be a fun spot that attracts locals with entertainment, special events (no upcharge), and enticing food and drinks. The atmosphere is there if Disney commits to making the nighttime click. Dance parties are not enough to keep guests in the parks. It isn’t rocket science!
7. Add a Series of Popular Annual Special Events
Like I mentioned above, the Animal Kingdom is perfect for special events. Similar to Epcot, this park works because of its warm atmosphere. The rides complement the overall feel of strolling through the attractive walkways. It’s a perfect place to set up special events to draw locals and frequent guests. My local zoo and botanical garden do such a great job at incorporating food, drinks, and live music into their space at night. There’s an easy model for Disney to follow.
I’m not asking Disney to stop building attractions. However, I know there are limits to budgets given the other major expansions. I’d love to see Disney set up new educational and entertainment events in 2018. They can theme by specific areas and liven up the nights with the extra focus. Visitors long for this type of enhanced offering. The key is not charging more for admission. Disney can make loads of money on high-priced food and drinks. People should feel like they’re getting value from their $100. An excellent way to provide that value is by adding cool seasonal events that grab their interest. Why not work with micro-breweries for a special craft beer event? I guarantee that at least this writer would find a way to visit during that event.